Documenting "The Other Half": The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
Photography and Social ReformJacob RiisLewis HineSlideshows

How the Other Half Lives

The Reporter of Mulberry Bend

Photographs and Lantern-Slide Lectures

How the Other Half Lives

Later Reform Efforts

Analysis of Riis Photographs

In the introduction to How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis wrote:

"Long ago it was said that 'one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.' That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate, of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat." [18]

Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives to call attention to the living conditions of more than half of New York City's residents. He described the cheap construction of the tenements, the high rents, and the absentee landlords. He lamented the city's ineffectual laws and urged private enterprise to provide funding to remodel existing tenements or build new tenements. [19]

Why the Book Was Popular
How the Other Half Lives was a publishing success, selling eleven editions in five years. [20] The book was popular for the following reasons:

  • A few years before its publication, Charles Loring Brace's The Dangerous Classes in New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them and James D. McCabe's Lights and Shadows of the Great City had placed the plight of the poor and the dangers of the urban environment in the minds of the middle and upper classes.
  • The factual data Riis gathered from Dr. Roger S. Tracy, Registrar of Vital Statistics, combined with Riis's reputation as an investigative journalist, lent authority to the book's claims.

  • Unlike other authors who wrote about urbanization issues, Riis proposed solutions to New York City's tenement problems.

  • The book included engravings of many of Riis's photographs, which enabled readers to better understand the problems that plagued the city.


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Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2000-2003